C.S. Lewis on Old Books

Many thanks to commenter Craig for helping me place my finger on this exact quote, which is worthy of repeating both for its keen insight and its classic Lewis tone.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook – even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united – united with each other and against earlier and later ages – by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth [or twenty-first] century – the blindness about which posterity will ask, ‘But how could they have thought that?’ – lies where we have never suspected it… None of us shall fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books… The only pallative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes.

– C.S. Lewis, Introduction to St. Athanasius’ On The Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2002; orig. ed. Centenary Press, 1944).


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  1. An essential admonition to any and every generation. Not unlike the 3 year old who begins to instruct the older generation about the things they are learning, each generation of believers goes through a progression of insight, revelation, correction and training. A process made even longer when the wisdom of those ahead of us is ignored.

    As the missional church pushes away from the traditional church, its programs and processes, it is essential that they do not push away from all the hard lessons learned, core values and wisdom in their own effort to embrace the work that God is doing in their time. I was involved in a work over 30 years ago, that shared many similarities with the missional church, and we were guilty of trying to relearn everything on our own, even to the point of ignoring the great literature of past generations of believers. How sad I was to recognize my own ignorance and pride after maturing some, and recognizing that we really were working together with those that I had dissed.

    (Luke 9:49-50 NLT) “John said to Jesus, ‘Master, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons. We tried to stop him because he isn’t in our group.” {50} But Jesus said, “Don’t stop him! Anyone who is not against you is for you.'”

    Having just gone through a couple of wonderful old books recently, our home group was amazed time and again that Lewis and Tozer nailed many of the same issues our generation struggles against; albeit perhaps a bit more pronounced. Human nature does not change, and God does not change. The condition and influences on our time do change, and understanding the momentum of the Holy Spirit and the times that we live in are essential for meaningful impact on those we live with. I am often surprised at how shallow and simple the arguments against the Good News stay when the world we live in is exploding with information. I often encounter the same dull arguments against the gospel that I encountered 30+ years ago; the same arguments explained well by generations of studious men.

    I commend you for encouraging your sphere of influence to consider the wonderful works of those generations past.

  2. Bob – Years ago you quoted Jonathan Edwards in a sermon, which prompted me to buy his complete works (2 BIG books with small print). Now our 16-year old is reading Edwards – praise God.

  3. Small print indeed… Edwards’ complete works are a heavy couple of volumes! But how cool that you bought them and that your 16 year old is reading them. Unfortunately said 16-year-old won’t be nearly as good at video games as his/her peers. 🙂

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